Ajax loader
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 1

There is no need to imagine how Reginald Marsh, described as the “unofficial Artist Laureate of New York” by Grace Mayer of the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) over fifty years ago, felt when commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project (T.R.A.P.) to paint murals in the US Custom House in 1936. [i] The panels had remained unfinished for nearly thirty years in an immensely impressive federal building occupying its own block at the base of Manhattan—a building with a sculptural and architectural program that already linked the United States Customs Service to maritime exploration of the past and four known continents of the world! For an artist who so firmly believed in representational art, who loved the New York harbor, and reveled in being an “American” painter, the opportunity to create these murals represented the chance quite literally to elevate his view of the city. Here was a chance, said Marsh, “to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power.” [ii] While much scholarship concentrates on Marsh’s rendering of crowds of people restlessly driven to enjoy themselves in the midst of the economic turbulence of the Depression, railroads and ships equally entranced the artist. In fact, Marsh first began to paint after seeing a Charles Burchfield painting of a locomotive. [iii] Large, bold, and modern, ships and trains were icons of strength and masculinity, the other side, perhaps, to the “carnivalesque” women and/or raucous spectacles he found on the streets and beaches of New York City. Marsh’s locomotive, commented one early reviewer, was more lyrically romantic than his crowded paintings. [iv] Just as Marsh sketched the urban populace at Coney Island Beach, on Fourteenth Street, on the Bowery, outside movies, and in the burlesque theaters, he made innumerable drawings in charcoal, pen and ink, and watercolor of the Manhattan waterfront whether viewing it from Hoboken, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Battery. Nautical themes were a love of the artist since his boyhood summers spent in Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island. He shared an affinity for water with his father, who built homes on an island in Maine and in Ormond Beach, Florida. Not only did Marsh sketch, draw, and paint, but he also photographed these subjects, recording details later utilized in his paintings. (See related essay on Marsh’s photographs in the collection of the MCNY.) This method of working from sketches, drawings, watercolors, and photographs served him especially well in his approach to the Custom House murals at a time when the government and public advocated representational veracity in mural work. [v] This essay revisits Marsh’s Custom House murals based upon a trove of material related to them in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The collection is testimony to Marsh’s astonishingly thorough work process. It also documents how the artist evolved the mural series, using his penchant for detail to validate a larger view of the city and nation consonant with the ideological nature of mural art during the Depression. In addition, it hints at underlying themes never entirely absent from his work—his obsessive attachment, for example, to women as central to his oeuvre. ................................................................... [i] Marsh wrote to Olin Dows, the head of T.R.A.P., “Here is a chance to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power, neither like the story tellling or propagandist painting which everybody does. I have in the past painted dozens of watercolors around N.Y. harbor, and would like to get at it with some of this knowledge.” See Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1972), 140. [ii] See Grace Mayer correspondence related to Reginald Marsh in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. [iii] Barbara Haskell, “Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and the Exuberant Chaos of Thirties New York,” in Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York, Barbara Haskell, ed. (New York: New York Historical Society in association D Giles Limited, London, forthcoming). [iv] For a discussion of the carnivalesque in Marsh’s work, see Jackson Lears, “Keeping the Carnival in Town: Reginald Marsh and the Culture of the 1930s,” in Haskell, Swing Time. The reviewer of a Marsh exhibition in 1932 (possibly from Time magazine) wrote: “Human beings may be vulgar, pretentious, obvious but a locomotive is always elegant, chic and glamorous.” In Scrapbook [#1], Clippings, circa 1922–1939, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 26, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Scrapbook-1-Clippings--276707. [v] According to Karal Ann Marling, the American public preferred historical murals during the 1930s. On the subject of murals during the Depression, see Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: a Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). Marsh’s interest in the Renaissance and Old Master traditions fueled his enthusiasm for mural work. He was able to combine his attraction to everyday life with the forms and compositions of Old Masters. See Marilyn Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art,” (PhD diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1986) and Marilyn Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs (New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Dover Publications, Inc., 1983).

ID:
X2012.54.62
[Rotunda of the United States Custom House.]
ca. 1937
gelatin silver print
H: 8 in, W: 10 in
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 2

The Custom House building (1899–1907) was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. The didactic program of the seven-story granite Beaux Arts–style edifice combined outdoor sculptures by Daniel Chester French with an attic cartouche by Karl Bitter along with statues related to historically important seafaring regions ranging from Phoenicia to Spain across the top of the building. French’s four sculptural groups representing the Four Continents as seated female figures include Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia. The North American and European continents are personified as realms of learning, strength, energy, and dominion, while Africa is asleep and Asia is dreaming. Bitter’s cartouche displays the seal of the United States flanked by sculptures of winged females and topped by a federal eagle. Forty-four Corinthian columns with heads of Mercury—the god of commerce—with dolphins and seashells in their capitals surround the building. Architectural details inside the building include ropes, cord, shells, waves, and ship prows, which are all related to the building’s nautical purpose and location. Dramatically variegated marble columns evoke the ocean with their pronounced undulating patterns. Inside the building, a grand rotunda rises two stories with a dome and skylight atop it. Originally, Gilbert planned murals here in a series of curving panels rising from the Vermont marble walls to support the elliptical dome. However, due to funding problems, those areas remained unfinished until the building was designated a site for painting under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s T.R.A.P. program, which was specifically dedicated to embellishing public buildings. Marsh received the commission to act as supervising artist for the project in part due to his skillful and speedy execution of murals in the Washington post office in 1935, which pictured how mail arrived by ship and was sorted. [vi] .................................................................. [vi] Correspondence related to both commissions is in the Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art. See also Marsh’s Art Notebook [#18] for notes specific to the Custom House project in these papers, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution pp. 1–66, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Art-Notebook-18-Custom-House-Murals--276594. There are also many sketches related to Marsh’s murals in the Washington post office in the MCNY collection (79.84.16–79.84.20 and 79.84.6–79.84.39 among numerous others).

ID:
X2010.7.1.930
Bowling Green. New York U.S. Custom House, entrance.
ca. 1905
gelatin dry plate negative
Width: 14 in
Height: 11 in
Museum of the City of New York. Wurts Bros. Collection. Gift of Richard Wurts, 1956.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 3

The section of the Custom House ceiling left undone consisted of eight trapezoidal panels alternating with eight tall and narrow rectangular ones, all of which curved both vertically and horizontally. Each tall rectangular panel had the name of an explorer set in plaster above it (Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Adriaen Block, Gaspar Cortereal, Henry Hudson, Giovanni da Verrazano, John Cabot, and Estevan Gomez), and, thus, already dictated a theme related to historical exploration. But Marsh was free to imagine his own scenario for the trapezoidal spaces. His earliest plan [79.84.4] featured the arrival of an ocean liner into New York Harbor, a subject easily related to the business transacted in the Custom House as well as to the building’s location close to the waterfront. It was, after all, through the Custom House that goods transported from across the seas entered the United States, and the duties levied there had enabled the American government to operate since the early nineteenth century. Until the introduction of an income tax in 1913, custom duties were the primary source of federal revenue. [vii] As Marsh envisioned them, the panels broke down an ocean liner’s progress into the harbor as a series of stages but used different liners. Various stages are represented in the panels: Passing Ambrose Lightship; Picking Up the Pilot; Cutter Approaching a Liner at Quarantine; Customs Officials Boarding Liner; New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty; The Press Interviewing a Celebrity; SS Normandie Being Warped into Berth; and Unloading Cargo. The ships featured are the SS Washington, the French liner Normandie, the British RMS Queen Mary, and the German Bremen. .................................................................. [vii] In the nineteenth century there was a great deal of corruption among Custom House officials who took money for themselves. It was essentially a spoils system. See Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), 1215.

ID:
76.24.62
Hudson. [Sketch of Henry Hudson]
1937
graphite pencil
paper (fiber product)
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1976.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
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Marsh’s process for painting, always dependent on intense observation, was no different in relation to this commission. In fact, it may have intensified due to some criticism of details in his Washington post office murals. [viii] In order to make the murals “authentic” to the degree he demanded, the painter asked for permission to board ocean liners, walk the piers freely, and travel on the Ambrose lightship, pilot ships, tugboats, and Coast Guard cutters. Letters from William B. Owen, the New York supervisor for T.R.A.P., confirm the artist’s request to do this. According to a March 8, 1937 letter from the president of the United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots’ Benevolent Association, for example, Marsh received permission pursuant to Owen’s letter to make trips on the pilot boat for “the purpose of obtaining material for the proposed mural which is to be placed in the rotunda of the Custom House.” The pilot boat delivered a pilot to the liner to take over navigation into the harbor, and the letter included the pilot boat schedule for Marsh’s convenience. The Superintendent of the Third Lighthouse District allowed the artist to visit the Ambrose Lighthouse to help “make Mr. Marsh’s material more authentic [emphasis added]” [ix] In addition, the head of T.R.A.P. arranged for Marsh to have passes from the different ocean lines to board their ships; Marsh saved the cards and letters issued to him by the Cunard White Star Limited, the Grace line, and the Hamburg America line. [x] He also had a pass to visit the Coast Guard cutter and a card giving him access to sketch Manhattan from the piers whenever he liked. The Museum of the City of New York has a program from the Queen Mary dated September 15, 1937 listing its passengers and general ship information for them. On it, Marsh wrote the name of the chief of T.R.A.P. procurement, Cecil Jones, and some supplies the artist needed to purchase. .................................................................. [xiii] “ . . . and the bureaucratic lambasting Reginald Marsh received while he struggled with the new aesthetic of hard evidence was passed over in the cheery assertion that ‘he was not himself satisfied until [the engineers] accepted all the mechanical details in his Post Office machinery as being correct.’” Director of Procurement to S.W. Purdum, Fourth Assistant Postmaster General, March 3, 1936. Cited in Marling, Wall-to-Wall America, 251. [ix] President of United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots’ Benevolent Association to William B. Owen, Supervisor of T.R.A.P., March 8, 1947, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 15, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276551. [x] Guy dal Piaz, Secretary, French Line to William B. Owen, Supervisor of T.R.A.P., February 9, 1937; Chief Marine Superintendent, Hamburg-American Line to William B. Owen, February 9, 1937;, Cunard White Star Line to William B. Owen, February 9, 1937; Vice President, Grace Line to William B. Owen, February 16, 1937 all give Marsh an official pass to their piers, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 10, 11, 12, and 13, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276551

ID:
X2012.54.220A
R.M.S. Queen Mary Cabin Class Passenger List
1937
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 5

In his pursuit of accuracy in all details of the waterfront, Marsh also collected postcards and photographs of the piers, the waterways around the city, the skyline from different vantage points, and the ocean liners. Some have paint marks on them, indicating their use in the actual preparation of the murals. He had several of the Queen Mary and the Normandie pulling into the harbor and seen against the skyline, many of which are in the MCNY collection. The sheer numbers of sketches in charcoal, pencil, or watercolor, and the varied sizes of them all—small ones from sketchbooks used during outings and larger watercolors worked up in the studio—reveal the obsessive character of the artist’s work method, a hard-work ethic which was to mark him as a yeoman “American” and not a “marginal” artist. [xi] Not only did Marsh do a vast amount of preparatory work from life, he also photographed his nautical subjects from different points of view, getting angles ranging from the dark passageways between the liner’s hulls and the dock to more expansive views of boats and crews seen from decks above, or against the skyline. He further traced details such as the sides of boats from photographs or postcards marking one, for example, “traced from Goff ‘Lafayette’ 209L.’” An ink drawing (illus 76.24.108) on tracing paper, denoted as “French liner Ralph Steiner,” has the accompanying notes: “6 rivets laterally—This row of rivets show very strong and outstanding.” Photography was the fastest way for Marsh to gather the raw data or “reality” of what he saw happening at the ports and on the ships. Marsh’s photographs in the MCNY collection specifically record the paraphernalia of rigging and masts, the newsreel cameras and microphones used by reporters covering transatlantic voyages, the Ambrose lightship moving through the water, couples striding down decks, and many other elements found in the final version of the murals. One of his assistants, Mary Fife, wrote: I would get up at three in the morning on a cold spring day and take the Broadway bus down to the Battery, where Reg would be waiting in the dark to board the tugboat which was going out to meet an incoming liner. In those days the harbor was very busy and we were sent down to Battery Park to make detailed sketches of rigging, tugboats, the Statue of Liberty, and the skyline from Governor’s Island. We often accompanied Reg on trips to meet the “Queen Mary” or the “Normandie.” Reg wanted details of lifeboats, davits, hawsers, ventilators, stacks, masts and rigging, sirens, bells, deck-chairs—everything.” [xii] .................................................................. [xi] Marsh defined himself as a working artist. Kathleen Spies, “Burlesque Queens and Circus Divas: Images of the Female Grotesque in the Art of Reginald Marsh and Walt Kuhn, 1915–1945,” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1999), 208. See also Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art.” [xii] Lisa Leavitt, “Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals: Reframed and Reseen,” American Art Review 7, no. 5 (October–November 1995): 122–27. http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/6aa/6aa15a.htm. Also cited by Jan Ramirez in exhibition text regarding Marsh’s Custom House murals (see note 14).

ID:
X2012.54.23
[Queen Mary.]
ca. 1937
gelatin silver print
H: 8 in, W: 10 in
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 6

Marsh’s daily diaries for the years 1936 and 1937 document the exact timeline of his process, indicating, for example, on November 20, 1936: “5:30 AM—1st time down harbor with Cutter,” and on November 21, “down harbor with Normandie.” He “breakfasted” on the Normandie on October 14. On September 20, 1937, he wrote that he had “come up on Queen Mary” and on September 27, “spend day at sea with pilots.” These diary entries are only a few among many. [xiii] After Marsh assembled his material and made his final sketches, he used a balopticon, a projector likely manufactured by Bausch and Lomb, to project his sketches through lantern slides onto the prepared panels. He then sketched over the projection, working from one of two fifty-foot scaffolds built to bring him up to the ceiling. (One cannot help thinking of Michelangelo and the Sistine Ceiling here!) He also created grids on his sketches to effect the transformation in scale to the larger panels. His diaries indicate which day he started each panel, when he used the balopticon, when he painted, and when he re-painted. That the process was unbearably tiring is evident in a notation on October 2, 1937 when, very much in the midst of painting the murals, specifically the Pilot panel; he wrote in his diary “collapse in aft.” Alongside this work method, so steeped in observation, needs to be placed Marsh’s advice to his art students to “Stare at Michelangelo casts. Go out into the street, stare at the people. Go into the subway. Stare at the people, Stare, stare, keep on staring. Go into your studio; stare at your pictures, yourself, everything.” As intensely as Marsh wanted to enter the literal world he was painting on the waterfront—and emphatically did so—he also wanted to place those images within the context of historical painting, which is why he decided to do the murals in fresco secco technique, the medium used during the Renaissance. For this, he consulted with Olle Nordmark, an artist schooled in the use of the medium who actively worked on the murals with him and who had helped him with the post office murals. Archived letters and records, calculations on old envelopes, and postcards all still in Marsh’s possession at the time of his death in 1954, describe the kinds of materials, such as bags of sand and cement necessary to prepare the ceiling for fresco, and the costs to be reimbursed by the government. The ceiling itself, however, needed to be entirely scraped and re-plastered because it sprung a leak likely due to the tiles originally used to construct the dome. It was an enormous feat successfully completed by Marsh with Nordmark and hired helpers. As the government threatened cancellation of the project for lack of funds, Marsh agreed to undertake the murals paid at the rate of a government clerk—approximately ninety cents an hour, less than what his workers earned, and proof of just how much he wanted to do them. .................................................................. [xiii] Marsh’s “Little Red Book” diaries for 1936, 1937, and 1938, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 18–61, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/-The-Little-Red-Book-Engagement-Diaries--276573.

ID:
90.36.1.646
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Newsreel photographers on ship.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 7

In 1994, Curator Jan Ramirez and others at the Museum of the City of New York wove together the variety of sketches, photographs, and watercolors in the museum’s collection for an exhibition demonstrating how Marsh conceived and executed the Custom House murals. [xiv] It is evident from sketches and watercolors that Marsh rejected certain formats in favor of others. For example, “Version #1” for the mural was to include a crowd scene of passengers watching from the deck as the liner entered New York harbor, but this changed into The Press Interviewing a Celebrity. Sketches depict varied arrangements for placement of the Statue of Liberty in the panel originally visualized as “Liberty” and “Immigration.” Immigration, however, would drop out as a theme. [xv] In a watercolor sketch of the Ambrose lightship with an ocean liner behind it, the lightship rambunctiously bobs forward in the choppy waters and into the viewer’s space. The liner behind it expands beyond the borders of the panel as if too enormous to be enclosed. In the final version, the liner is laid out more symmetrically and appears in its entirety while the Ambrose settles somewhat more calmly in the waters. Rather than Unloading Cargo, sketches show the original panel as loading cargo. In the first design, the pilot ship responsible for bearing the pilot to the liner to steer it comfortably into port was on the reverse side. Marsh also added figures once he nearly completed a panel. Thus Marsh constantly invested his mental and physical energies into the visual narrative of the mural cycle. .................................................................. [xiv] Jan Seidler Ramirez, “The Making of a Mural: Reginald Marsh at the U.S. Custom House,” Museum of the City of New York, October 7, 1994–March 27, 1995 (Exhibition text, Institutional Archive). This exhibition was contemporaneous with the reopening of the US Custom House as the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. From photographs in the MCNY collection, it seems that the artist had a model of the ceiling helped him to create the finished panels, especially given the curvature of the walls. See letter to Marsh from Olin Dows, Chief of T.R.A.P., indicating that William B. Owen is having “a scale model made of the dome” to help “in facilitating study of the problem of the curved space.” Olin Dows to Reginald Marsh, December 9, 1936, pp. 24–25, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276550. The many photographs Marsh took of his sketches for the mural panel in the MCNY collection suggest that Marsh used this model and photos of paintings and sketches to help formulate compositions. Marsh’s father used maquettes to create his murals of skyscraper construction in the early twentieth century. See notes 32 and 33. [xv] Oswald E. Camp, Superintendent, US Department of the Interior, National Park Service to Reginald Marsh, June 12, 1937, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 47, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276551. This letter gives Marsh exact details of the Statue’s torch from the department that oversees the Statue of Liberty.

ID:
76.24.5
[Ambrose Lightship]
1937
paper (fiber product)
watercolor (paint)
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1976.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES